Tag Archives: Possessions

What Shall We Eat? (Lev 25:6-7, 20-22)

In reading the Jubilee once again and Walter Brueggeman’s commentary on it from Finally Comes The Poet , I was struck by two particular aspects of this passage that I had missed previously. The first relates to a question that I think many people think of, if not ask explicitly, when thinking about the practice of letting fields lie fallow for an entire year. The text itself asks, “What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?” (Lev 25:20). With global population now at 7 billion, we don’t really have the luxury of following this kind of practice right? Well, first let’s listen to the text and see if it has anything to say to a world with 7 billion people.

This question is the central theme of this blog, “What shall we eat?”. Perhaps in the imagination of the agrarian readers of Leviticus it was almost as impossible as it seems to us to feed yourself without practicing constant and intensive agriculture. The answer to the question of how they will eat if the land is not in production is found at the beginning and middle of the chapter:

The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and dwell in it securely…I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives. (Lev 25:6-7, 19, 21-22)

So, here’s the radical thought to sit with for a second: The earth produces food without the help of human beings. Some of the plants that we consider a nuisance and call weeds are actually edible. Before you start foraging for dinner among your local neighborhood make sure you get educated. Back in the day it was common knowledge what to eat and what not to eat. We have lost that common knowledge and now must rely on field guides and experts to learn what we can forage in our local bioregion. This fact, that the earth supports all of the life on it without the help of human beings, is the central idea of the Sabbath practices which culminate in this year-long practice of cultivating the mindfulness of our place within the creation that sustains us.

Now, the global population when Leviticus was written between 538-332 BCE was somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 million. That’s only 3% of the current world population of 7 billion. So while the advent of agriculture had already begun to significantly increase global populations, the pressures of population on the land to produce was minimal compared to today. I’ve heard lots of different figures about what the carrying capacity of the earth is in terms of human population from 10 million all the way up to 9 billion. Regardless, it is clear that this practice of an entire year without production would not support current and future levels of population.

Now, you careful readers will point out that in the text God promises a bumper crop just prior to the Jubilee that will carry them through the fallow year and then some. While it may seem like this is the product of human ingenuity and hard work, any good farmer will tell you that there’s really not much you can do to get yields of the magnitude suggested by this passage. Sure there are bumper crops, but not because of anything any farmer did to make it happen. Studies have shown that even our best technological attempts to improve yield can’t out perform nature. So, the provision of food to carry people through three years on one year of production is a miracle intended to tell them, “Quit worrying about it and trust me”.

So, we have created a world which is completely dependent on the efforts of human beings to maintain and sustain itself. This clearly contradicts the heart of the Sabbath practices which reorient our lives around the fact that we are not owners in an absolute sense and the maintenance and sustenance of life on this planet does not depend on us. What are the repercussions for a world in which we have transgressed this Sabbath boundary and made a world dependent on us, in essence making ourselves God? I suggest that this question, “What shall we eat?” reveals once again our addiction to control and domination and our complete disconnection from the land. The Jubilee is a radical act of faith in the ability of the creation to sustain itself and ourselves, if we are willing to understand the boundaries of the system as it was created.

Up next… Jubilee is Salvation.

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

The DIY Lifestyle™

Through our family’s journey to live more in tune with the planet and our neighbors we have gained a lot of new skills in the last few years. My wife has learned how to brew kefir, make cheese, knit, make bread and a lot of other food from scratch. I’ve built some things from scratch, like a chicken coop, composting bins and our composting toilet. We have tried to use what was laying around the house or find salvaged or used materials. I’ve made gardens with old tires, recycled milk jugs and old windows. We’ve learned to raise chickens and grow more of our own food. When we lived in the states I checked the local free page on craigslist and freecycle group for stuff that might be useful. In many ways we embody what someone, somewhere called the DIY Lifestyle™.

I add that little trademark for two reasons: 1) just in case it is actually trademarked so I don’t get sued and 2) because what we do based on trying to live out our principles has been commodified, commercialized and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. This “movement” has its own cable channel, not to mention all the shows on home makeovers and magazines. Multi-billion dollar companies, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, profit off of and fuel the DIY trend. We’ve come a long way since Bob Vila’s This Old House.

Do the people who own the companies associated with the DIY Lifestyle™ participate in the idea from which they profit? Do they get down on their hands and knees to remove tile, paint rooms, caulk tubs, build picnic tables and gazebos by the sweat of their own brow? Somehow I doubt it. Their business is built on the idea that they profit off all the schmucks who do their own home repair and remodeling projects while they have everything done for them.

There’s something disturbing to me about the commodification of doing something yourself. What does it mean that doing something yourself means participating in this industry, buying magazines, watching shows and shopping at big box stores? It means we aren’t doing anything ourselves. Even that is being taken from us. “Do-It-Yourself, but please let us help and make some money along the way.” This doesn’t seem to bother some people. “It’s just the way it is” or maybe “That’s just business” and I should get over it.

But there is something sacred about having spaces and activities that are not commodified and commercialized. There is something very human about doing things that step outside of the world of cost/benefit and brand names. There is something important about holding on to activities that business cannot touch. The truth is that there is nothing that business will not touch. So, it is up to us to fight for our right not to be commodified.

I once heard Utah Phillips say that the most revolutionary thing you can do is sing your own song. As a musician and songwriter that really struck me. It took a while for the meaning of what he said to really sink in. I’ve been writing and performing music for most of my life. People, friends, family and strangers have asked over the years when I was going to make a CD. I have often flipped through the Discmakers catalogue dreaming of having my own CD and making a living from my music. It often felt as if my music could only be legitimate if I allowed it to be commodified. It seems there was never enough time. There were always other things to do like seminary, learning about sustainable agriculture and moving to Bolivia. The truth is I never made producing a CD a priority, but I never stopped writing, playing and singing.

One of our favorite things to do here in Bolivia is sit on our porch and play music together. I’m learning to play the charango and still writing songs. One day not long ago I realized the real impact of what Utah Phillips said. When we create and play our own music, we refuse to allow it to be commodified. We create and play music for its own sake. We refuse to allow the market and commodification machine to define what is legitimate for us.

It’s easy to relegate this kind of activity to something called a “hobby”, by which we mean to pat someone on the head and say, “That’s nice that you like to pretend. Just remember that the big boys are the ones who make the real music”. This is true for “hobby farmers” or any other number of activities that people do for their own sake without the need to make a profit from it. The music we create on our own terms should not be relegated to the kiddie table. It is a serious human activity that stands against a consumer culture, economic system and advertising industry that wants to commodify everything in order to satisfy the insatiable hunger of the infinitely expanding growth economy.

So write poetry and novels, paint and write music. Don’t sell it to anyone, but give it away for free. Make your own house, food, chairs, clothes, etc. and don’t watch any shows or read any magazines to figure it out. Find a friendly old man in your neighborhood with a garage full of tools and ask him to help. Carve out parts of your life and soul and refuse to allow them to be turned into something that is either commodified or called a “hobby”.

Affluenza: Causes

The second part of the book Affluenza considers the causes of the disease of consumerism. Honestly it seemed somewhat lacking in depth. This is a complicated issue. Consider simply the question “What are the causes of poverty?” Books upon books have been written trying to describe the causes of one of the symptoms of our consumer society, economic inequality. Yet we seem no closer to a consensus.

What about the debt culture in North America? Some blame consumer behavior that fuels this spiral. Others blame the banks and corporations that advertise and offer these products. Still others blame government laws and regulations that permit and even incentive these kinds of products and consumer behavior that stimulates our growth economy. Certainly the cause lies somewhere in the convergence of these three culprits. Has this gotten us any closer really to understanding the causes of affluenza?

But industrial leaders in the 1920s had their own religion, the gospel of consumption. A reduction in working hours, they believed, might bring the whole capitalist system to its knees. Increased leisure, Harvard economist Thomas Carver Nixon warned, was bad for business: “There is no reason to believe that more leisure would ever increase the desire for goods…If it should result in more gardening, more work around the home in making or repairing furniture, painting and repairing the house and other useful avocations, it would cut down the demand for the products of our wage paying industries.” (142-143)

The answer to the causes of the disease of affluenza, I believe, lies in a deeper understanding of the system itself. The authors of the book sometimes drop the metaphor of disease for my preferred metaphor of religion. I wonder if it has any more explanatory power than the metaphor of disease. In terms of causes it might help reveal underlying motivating factors embedded in the system. The point I take home from this quote and others from advertising executives is that the idea that problems we face are inherent in the system. In order to deal with the problems we are encountering in terms of poverty, resource exhaustion, rates of stress, anxiety, depression and suicide, climate change, etc., we must face the fact that the system is designed to get exactly these results.

Consumerism: Disease or Religion?

The book (which was originally a series on PBS) Affluenza uses the metaphor of disease to try and understand the modern world, in particular the consumerism of North American culture. Following this metaphor the book is divided into three sections: symptoms, causes and treatments. Among other things the book is a pretty amazing compilation of interesting facts and statistics about our consumer lifestyles.

I have used the metaphor of religion to describe consumerism. Even though disease is the prevailing metaphor throughout this book, the authors also see the spiritual aspects of the consumer religion. I would like to share some of the statistics, quotes and insights I found most interesting and try to connect them to the idea of consumerism as a religion.

Shopping Fever Shopping is certainly the primary activity of the consumer religion, and the first symptom of the affluenza disease. Numbers and statistics about how much we buy and spend are staggering, but this one in particular really stood out.

In 1986 America still had more high schools than shopping centers. In less than twenty years later, we have more than twice as many shopping centers (46,438) as high schools (22,180). (13)

This book was published in 2005. So, I’m not sure how the financial crisis has affected these numbers if at all, but I would guess that it hasn’t improved much. The authors then make this astute observation, “In the Age of Affluenza…shopping centers have supplanted churches as a symbol of cultural values” (13). Perhaps some more detailed cultural anthropology would need to be done to prove this assertion, but it certainly rings true. Nevertheless, we tend to view shopping malls as economic rather than cultural symbols. Are these our modern temples, synagogues, mosques or churches? We certainly spend more time there than at centers of worship.

Chronic Congestion It is clear that we buy more stuff than we need. Whenever we move into a bigger house, because we’re running out of space, instead of enjoying the extra space we buy more stuff until we have to either move to an even larger house or perhaps turn to the burgeoning self-storage industry.

There are now more than 30,000 self-storage facilities in the country, offering over 1.3 billion square feet of relief…The industry has expanded fortyfold since the 1960s, from virtually nothing to $12 billion annually, making it larger than the U.S. music industry. (32)

This fact blew my mind. When you think about the biggest corporations, industries and big money, do you think of self-storage? Certainly not. The music industry would certainly be higher on most people’s list. Yet the numbers don’t lie. If consumerism is a religion, perhaps self-storage is the place where we put our holy objects. We have “set apart” these spaces for our stuff and made it so important that this industry can thrive.

The Stress of Excess The amount of extra stuff we have also comes with a certain burden.

We thought the opposite was supposed to be true: that advances in technology, automation, cybernation, were supposed to give us more leisure time and less working time…In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcomittee heard testimony that estimated a workweek of from fourteen to twenty-two hours by the year 2000. We got the technology, but we didn’t get the time. [quoting Staffan Linder, Swedish economist, warning about the "harried leisure class"] “Economic growth entails a general increase in the scarcity of time. As the volume of consumption goods increases in the scarcity of time, requirements for the care and maintenance of these goods also tends to increase, we get bigger houses to clean, a car to wash, a boat to put up for the winter, a television set to repair, and have to make more decisions on spending.” (41)

It seems that our economic indicators and measurements don’t account very well for this scarcity. Certainly we like to say that time is valuable and people should be compensated for their time, but it doesn’t seem that the effects of this lack of time are accounted for. In religion time is set aside for particular holy days, where other activities, like economics, are set aside. More and more, however, the consumer religion encroaches on these sacred times. Sundays are no longer set aside for Christians, and when other religions request space for Sabbath or prayer practices, it is mighty inconvenient for the consumer culture which does not recognize these as viable activities.

Family Convulsions The effects on the family of this lack of time and emphasis on stuff seems obvious to me, but we have come to live with these contradictions. The authors point in particular how conservatives embody such cintradictions.

“The contradiction between wanting rapid economic growth and dynamic economic change and at the same time wanting family values, community values, and stability is a contradiction so huge that it can only last because of an aggressive refusal to think about it.” (52 quoting former Reagan administration official with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Edward Luttwak)

Social Scars The disease of affluenza has social and global implications. David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World and former business professor at Stanford and Harvard, worked for Harvard Business School, Ford Foundation and USAID in Africa, Asia and Central America says,

“My career was focused on training business executives to create the equivalent of our high consumption economy in countries throughout the world. The whole corporate system in the course of globalization is increasingly geared up to bring every country into the consumer society. And there is a very strong emphasis on trying to reach children, to reshape their values from the very beginning to convince them that progress is defined by what they consume.” (87)

This is what the church calls spiritual formation and involves catechism, bible study, confirmation classes or other forms of discipleship. This man is what the church calls “missionaries”. His mission is the mirror image of evangelism efforts by missionaries in foreign contexts. He is seeking to make converts in the developing world, saving their souls by selling them the American Dream.

It seems crucial to me to understand that this kind of “education” takes place in order to spread the gospel of consumerism and it functions in the same way religious instruction does (or any other form of ideological education or indoctrination). I confess that religious education is propaganda, in much the same way that David Korten describes his work spreading consumerism. The difference is between destructive and healthy or constructive ideologies.

Resource Exhaustion I have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing this topic. So, I will just share two of the statistics that struck me.

Dividing the planet’s biologically productive land and sea by the number of humans…[we] come up with 5.5 acres per person. That’s if we put nothing aside for all other species. “In contrast,” says [Swiss engineer Mathis] Wackernagel. “the average world citizen used 7 acres in 1996…That’s over 30 percent more than we can regenerate. Or in other words, it would take 1.3 years to regenerate what humanity uses in one year.” (96)

More than 20,000 species go extinct every year causing many scientists to proclaim that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction and the largest extinction in the planet’s history. (98)

Industrial Diarrhea I just really liked this phrase. The chapter is about the waste that industry produces.

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed The fact that rates of depression and anxiety disorders continue to grow exponentially should be a sign to us that something is wrong, but instead we simply medicate the problems so we can function in a sick society.

Psychologist Richard Ryan points to scores of studies–his own among them–showing that material wealth does not create happiness… In the human species, happiness comes from achieving intrinsic goals like giving and receiving love. Extrinsic goals like monetary wealth, fame, and appearance are surrogate goals, often pursued as people try to fill themselves up with “outside-in” rewards. (115)

Isn’t this the goal of most people? To be happy? Isn’t this why we pursue the consumer religion (or any religion, ideology or system of belief)? To find meaning and fulfillment? So, if it obviously doesn’t work, then why do we keep doing it? While results are not everything when it comes to religion, I think it’s worth asking if what we’re doing or believing is producing the actual results we want. This is not about efficiency, but integrity. In a world so saturated by media and advertising the most difficult task may be to actually identify what it actually is that we want. Then we can begin to deconstruct the siren call of consumerism as something that fails to meet any of our most basic human needs.